Life and Times
John Tradescant (aka “Treadeskant”) was an English horticulturist.
His son, also named John Tradescant, was also a horticulturist. As a team, they introduced many new plants to England. In fact, some sources credit the “Tradescants” for various things, without specifying the father or the son.
Tradescant the Elder
John Tradescant the elder was born circa 1570, probably in Walberswick, Suffolk. Because the family was of Dutch origin, though, some feel it’s possible he may even have been born in the Netherlands. He was born with one defect: he had no sense of smell.
On 18 June 1607 in Meopham, Kent he married a woman named Elizabeth Day (born circa 1575) who would be John Jr’s mother.
In 1609, he started working for Robert Cecil, first Earl of Salisbury (1563-1612.) In 1610 and again in 1611, he went to France and to the Netherlands to bring back fruit trees for the gardens at the Earl’s residence, Hatfield House in Hertfordshire, which Cecil had received from King James in a house swap two years before Tradescant arrived. He also developed the gardens at the Earl’s other home, Cranborne Manor in Dorset.
He then worked for the second Earl of Salisbury, William Cecil (1591 – 1668), at Salisbury House in the Strand, London.
In 1615, he started working for Edward, Lord Wotton, at St Augustine’s Palace in Canterbury and stayed with him until 1623. While in Wotton’s employ, he travelled to Archangel, Russia in 1618 and brought back botanical samples. Accompanying him was Sir Dudley Digges, whom he advised on gardens for his castle at Chilham. One of the things they brought back was larch trees.
Tradescant was brought samples back from Virginia by a Captain Samuel Argall, who would become Governor of Virginia in 1617. Tradescant bought shares in several of the Virginia expeditions — for instance in 1617, he purchased a £25 share.
In 1620, Tradescant went to Algiers on a British Navy ship, the Mercury. It’s on this trip, some believe, he brought apricot trees to England for the first time.
In 1623, he started working as gardener for the first Duke of Buckingham, George Villiers, in New Hall, Essex (near Chelmsford) then at Burley-on-the-Hill. Villiers had arrived in London in 1614 at the age of 22, and become a lover of King James 1, who was 48 at the time. Villiers was a commoner, but King James made him a Duke in 1623.
In 1624, Tradescant went to the Netherlands for the Duke of Buckingham. In May 1625, he joined the Duke of Buckingham in Paris to attend the marriage of Prince Charles to Henrietta Maria. King James had died a few months earlier, in March 1625, but Charles wasn’t crowned king until the following year, in February 1626. In 1627, Tradescant travelled again with the Duke of Buckingham to France; they brought back poppies. Historical fiction writer “Philippa Gregory” in her “Earthly Joys” series now speculates that Tradescant may have had an affair with the Duke of Buckingham. (But in any event, it all ended in 1628 when Buckingham was assassinated at Portsmouth; he was stabbed to death.)
In 1626, Tradescant took a house on a 21-year lease from the Dean of Canterbury in the “Vauxhall Escheat” on the south bank of the Thames (now part of London, 274 South Lambeth Road.) There, he started his own garden.
He also started a collection of curiosities, which he left to his son. He called his collection the “Ark”; it took up several rooms in his house.1
In 1630, Tradescant secured an appointment working directly for Charles 1, as “Keeper of his Majesty’s Gardens, Vines, and Silkworms” at Oatlands Palace, Surrey (near Weybridge.) At this time, Oatlands was the home of Charles 1’s wife, Henrietta Maria. (Oatlands was demolished in 1649. Subsequent mansions were built there, and the last one to be built, in 1794, became a hotel in 1856 and is still a hotel today.) In 1633, Tradescant acquired Scarlet Runner Beans from Virginia, and started growing them at Oatlands as an ornamental plant for their flowers.
John Tradescant senior died 15/16 April 1638.
Tradescant the Younger
John Tradescant the younger was born in Meopham, Kent on 4 August 1608, where his father and mother Elizabeth lived at the time.
In 1619, at the age of 11, he was sent to the Kings School in Canterbury (where celebrity chef Anthony Worrall Thompson would go in the 1900s.) At the time, the family lived in Canterbury: his father was working for Edward, Lord Wotton at St Augustine’s Palace in Canterbury.
He married a Jane Hurte.
John and Jane would have two children: a girl named Frances, born 1625, and a boy named John, born 1633.
Jane died in May 1634.
He travelled to Virginia in America three times: 1637, 1642 and 1654 , where he acquired the rights to 100 acres of land. He brought back the Virginia Creeper bush, the yucca plant and the scarlet runner bean.
Upon the death of his father in 1638, he took over as head gardener for Charles 1st and his wife Queen Henrietta Maria. He worked on the Queen’s garden in Greenwich from 1638 to 1642. Work was interrupted when the Queen had to flee because of the civil war. Some speculate that Tradescant the younger may have grown pineapples there.
In September 1638, he got married a second time, to a Hester Pooks.
He introduced to the UK the horse chestnut tree, the tulip tree, the pitcher plant, magnolias, the bald cypress, phlox and asters.
He also added to his father’s curio collection, and opened it as a small museum to the public for a small admission charge, calling it the “Musaeum Tradescantianum.”
In 1656, he published a catalogue of the collection titled “Musaeum Tradescantianum” on the suggestion of a lawyer named Elias Ashmole (1617 – 1692), who was a close neighbour in the Vauxhall Escheat.
When Tradescant passed away on 22 April 1662 at South Lambeth, London, Ashmole was left the collection. Ashmole used the collection as the basis of the collection that formed the basis of what is now called the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
Tradescant elder and younger are both buried in a shared outdoor tomb in the graveyard of St Mary-at-Lambeth Church, near the tomb of Captain Bligh (he of the ship Bounty fame.) Three other Tradescants are there as well: John Jr’s first wife Jane, their son, John, who died aged 19 in 1652, and his second wife, Hester. Hester died in April 1678 by drowning in their own pond at Lambeth.
Ashmole is buried in the church yard as well.
The church was deconsecrated in the early 1970s, but was saved from demolition and since 1977 has been the home of the Museum of Garden History.
Literature & Lore
The inscription on top their tomb reads:
Know, stranger, ere thou pass, beneath this stone
Lie John Tradescant, grandsire, father, son
The last dy’d in his spring, the other two,
Liv’d till they had travelled Art and Nature through,
As by their choice Collections may appear,
Of what is rare in land, in sea, in air,
Whilst they (as Homer’s Iliad in a nut)
A world of wonders in one closet shut,
These famous Antiquarians that had been
Both Gardeners to the Rose and Lily Queen,
Transplanted now themselves, sleep here & when
Angels shall with their trumpets waken men,
And fire shall purge the world, these three shall rise
And change this Garden then for Paradise.
Some people have credited the Tradescants with introducing cos lettuce (aka Romaine Lettuce) into England, but it was in fact already known there by the mid-1500s. What contemporary sources report, in fact, is that they introduced a red variety.
F. H. W. Sheppard (General Editor). English Heritage: Vauxhall and South Lambeth. Vauxhall Escheat. Survey of London: Vol. 26. 1956. Pages 73-80. ↩